The dark side of standardized testing

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron.

Since the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, standardized testing became a standard for educational evaluation of primary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. Often revered by politicians and parents alike, standardized tests are supposed to indicate student comprehension of key concepts and learning ability. The concepts influencing the creation of such tests are justifiable and noble, wanting to investigate the success of the American educational system and provide equal opportunities to students across the country.

However, standardized tests fail to be educationally beneficial and decrease opportunity for genuine learning. I will discuss two forms of standardized testing: primary and middle school student achievement tests and college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.

No Child Left Behind strived to increase school accountability across the nation and dramatically increased the number of student achievement tests administered in schools. The tests are intended to be an indicator of school performance, so student scores now partially determine teacher salary and school funding.

Standardized tests increase pressure on teachers because, in many cases, their livelihoods are determined by the performance of 6 through 15-year-olds on any given day. Children are notoriously inconsistent and fickle, and most people would not want their futures determined by such students, no matter how mature or smart they are.

Additionally, schools in poorer neighborhoods will have started with less funding, so if their students score worse, they will have less funding than schools in more affluent districts, which will decrease their access to quality education. This ultimately results in a cycle that deprives students of equal access to education.

Further, emphasis placed on student achievement tests increases student stress and can cause unnecessary test anxiety, especially if parents or teachers continually reinforce the importance of exam outcomes rather than the opportunity to demonstrate learning, a distinction confusing even when adequately conveyed.

Student achievement tests encourage teachers to “teach to the test” and use “drill n’ kill” rote memorization techniques. While the aim of the tests is to reinforce comprehension of essential concepts, they are often comprised of overly specific subjects that are more easily memorized than learned. When classes are taught based on a single test, class time can be devoted to test preparation and memorization, decreasing the time a class can learn other concepts or the time a teacher can convey the same or similar concepts in a manner catering to more varied learning styles.

Teaching to the test can make classes boring and can dissuade student interest in subjects emphasized on the tests. Subjects not easily or often tested are either not emphasized or not taught, so subjects like arts, physical education and specific sciences. Especially when students are exposed to testing very early, they fail to develop natural interests in these subjects.

Administering these tests uses limited resources to yield accurate measurements of student educational outcomes, but their failure to reliably do so and the negative consequences of such tests make the financial investment worthless.

Additionally, college placement exams like the SAT and ACT are revered above almost any other standard by which students are evaluated during college application reviews. These tests are supposedly a standardized way for colleges to evaluate students nationally. However, people who have the resources to hire tutors and take the tests multiple times are disproportionately advantaged in taking the tests. The tests also rarely test actual relevant learned information, so they are a poor indicator of intellect and learning potential. They often require background knowledge about certain contexts, including socioeconomic and racial factors, so that students without the relevant experience are disadvantaged and perform worse due to factors unrelated to their ability and intelligence.

Standardized tests prioritize theoretically standardized learners but actually decrease student engagement and lower the U.S.’s international position regarding education. Such realities emphasize the empirical results of education rather than more meaningful practical results that foster critical thinking. The skills tested on these exams hinder the development of this kind of thinking that Jewell emphasizes despite their focus on tests like the ACT.

Arguments in favor of standardized tests center on their ability to indicate future success in higher education. However, many of these statistics are vague and debated. In cases of college entrance exams, higher scores can stem from economic privilege, which also can aid students in attending “better” schools with more prestigious degrees and in having constant support throughout their college experience.  

Yet, in a nation that seemingly prefers the college degree over the college education, standardized tests are a logical way to give ourselves a gold star proving how well our students learn and our teachers teach.

Photo Courtesy of The Atlantic

Catherine Dema

Catherine Dema is the page editor for Features & Investigations on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and physics.

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